Quarterback Keith Smith’s trademark at Arizona was escaping seemingly impossible situations and making plays. But a courtroom is not a football field and a judge cannot be sidestepped like a linebacker.
Smith could not break free from the Canadian Football League and likely will play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders next season. That indeed would be a rough ride because of Smith’s actions the last several months.
Smith, 24, signed a two-year deal with Saskatchewan in April but abruptly retired after one practice. He got the bug to play again while coaching Newbury Park freshmen in the fall and was drafted by the Los Angeles Xtreme of the Xtreme Football League in October.
The former Newbury Park High star, who led Arizona to a 12-1 record in 1998, spent mornings practicing with the Xtreme in Long Beach and afternoons coaching in Newbury Park.
“I was so excited to play,” he said. “I’d be close to home. I saw all the great players working out, a lot of guys with NFL experience, and I wanted to be part of it.”
The Roughriders, however, reminded him he was still part of them.
Saskatchewan would not let Smith out of his contract, prompting him to seek an injunction Dec. 22 in Phoenix to allow him to sign with the Xtreme. He was sacked by the judge, who ruled the Arizona court did not have jurisdiction.
Smith believes seeking the injunction in Regina, Canada, home of the Roughriders, would be pointless.
“The community owns the team,” he said. “They wouldn’t rule in my favor.
“I’m considering very strongly going up there [to Saskatchewan] and suiting up. I don’t think I can afford to sit out two seasons in a row. I need to play.”
The CFL season runs from June to November, giving Smith time to explore other options.
Including baseball. Smith is property of the Kansas City Royals, who took him in the Rule 5 Draft last year. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1994 and twice quit after short stints in the minors.
Smith worked out recently with Angel minor-league infielder David Lamb, also a Newbury Park product, and said, “I’ve got an itch to play.”
The World Football League, which opens its season April 21, is an outside possibility.
Meanwhile, Smith’s agent, Burt Kinerk, is trying to convince Saskatchewan to place Smith on waivers, which would enable the quarterback to accept an invitation next summer to an NFL training camp, most likely with the Dallas Cowboys. That is a customary practice for the CFL, which has accepted sizable loans from the NFL.
“So far we have not been able to turn the key,” Kinerk said. “Other CFL teams have waived players through. The Roughriders have been a tough act.”
The XFL excluded CFL players from its supplemental draft Friday and the leagues are trying to work out an agreement that doesn’t make victims of players such as Smith. But it doesn’t appear the CFL will act soon enough for Smith to join the Xtreme, which begins training camp this week in Las Vegas and opens its season Feb. 4.
Smith’s case, in fact, gave leverage to the CFL.
“I think it sends a message that courts, even outside the Canadian border, recognize the validity of our contracts,” CFL Commissioner Michael Lysko said. “What it does is reaffirm the validity of our contracts.”
The validity of CFL contracts has been an issue since Vince McMahon announced the formation of the XFL. The seasons of the two leagues do not overlap, and CFL officials feared the XFL would raid Canadian rosters for players without regard to existing contracts.
However, XFL officials believe the CFL eventually will suffer unless it relaxes its stance.
"[The CFL] will never sign another kid to a two-year contract,” said XFL Vice President Michael Keller. “Every contract they sign from now on will be one that lets the player out early. They’re just painting themselves into a corner.
"[Smith] realized he didn’t want to be up there and left. Now he’s being held hostage. I don’t think that’s a way to treat anybody. Some of the CFL teams doing that might win a battle, but they’re going to lose the war.”
Jim Barker, a former Toronto Argonaut head coach who is an assistant with the Xtreme, realizes the football at the moment is political.
“We knew when we took [Smith] that something like this could happen,” Barker said. “But we felt the risk was worth it because he is a quality player.
“We understand where Saskatchewan is coming from and don’t harbor any hard feelings.”
As long as the Roughriders let bygones be bygones, Smith might be in a position to start. Quarterback Henry Burris is entering his option year, meaning he has a six-week window to sign with one of the several NFL teams that have shown interest in him.
Smith, whose mobility while passing for 3,635 yards and 23 touchdowns during his last two seasons at Arizona drew comparisons to Doug Flutie, could prosper in the CFL. But he’d rather play in the USA.
“When I went to court, I thought I’d get out of [the CFL contract] and go play ball,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
It turned out to be the longest scramble of his career.